Persephone

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

People say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. That is actual bullshit.

They also say that there’s a light at the end of a tunnel. That is also bullshit.

What there is, is pain, and then darkness, and then clips of moments in my life. I don’t know the relevance of them. Random memories, flying through my head. Or my mind, I guess. I don’t think I’m in my head anymore.

It’s pretty easy to understand that I’m dead. I could think that maybe I’m in some weird coma dream. But I got shot in the fucking back. I don’t know if there’s a way to come back from that.

Anyway, these random memories are interspersed with him. Dexter. From the night that I met him. Everything in crystal clarity. Is he significant because the most recent parts of my life before death included him? I don’t know. Even in death, I can’t fucking admit my feelings.

Stupid.

I’m in a graveyard, which seems kind of cliche. I’d honestly expected that if there was some kind of life after death that I’d be facing fire and brimstone. But here we are. I guess I’m doing an old fashioned haunting here. I hope I’m not confined to this graveyard. It would suck to only haunt sad people.

There’s a sharp sob and I turn, heading around a line of trees. I stop dead in my tracks.

It’s my mom.

She’s curled over a headstone, crying. Big deep ugly crying, too. I would have thought it was a put-on, but there are no cameras. There’s nobody, actually. Late to my own funeral, I guess. There’s a man with her in a long black coat, and he reaches out and pulls her against his chest.

Upon closer scrutiny, I realize it’s Dr. Roark. Really? The only other person hanging out at my headstone with my mom is my doctor?

“Still haven’t figured it out?” Dexter’s voice is smooth as silk.

I damn near jump out of my non-existent skin. Am I corporeal? How can he see me? As I turn around to look at him, pristine and perfect in all his bearded glory, an equally horrifying thought crosses my mind.

Is he dead, too?

“No,” he replies with a sad smile.

My mouth opens and closes like a fish, a horrible squeaking sound rising from my lungs. I feel like my mind should be reeling with questions, but it’s almost like an overload to zero. Does not compute.

“You died,” he says gently, and reaches out to take my hand.

I stare down at it, disappearing into his big warm paw. I’m dead. He’s warm and he’s touching me and I’m dead.

“You took a bullet for me,” he continues, “and you used your last dying breath to tell me not to touch your blood.” He chuckles, and I raise my gaze to his again, helpless under his golden gaze. “In some ways you’re so naive. It’s amazing you’ve believed the lie for so long.”

My brow furrows. I slip out of my shock just long enough for something to click deep inside me, and I immediately turn back to the man clutching my mother. Dr. Roark. The man who’d taken care of me my whole life. The man who told me that I had a horrible disease that I had to keep secret and that I could never go to any other doctor. The man who I’d snidely thought had fucked my mom once upon a time.

Believed the lie…

Understanding crashes over me and my breath catches in my throat. Or it would have, if I had breath. Do I breathe anymore? I’m fucking dead.

There’s a ringing sound, deep inside of my head, and it grows louder and louder, pulsing in my skull.

“He’s my dad,” I whisper, and the ringing stops abruptly.

“He is,” Dexter says.

I swallow, hard. “But how…” How do you know that? What’s going on? How are you-

“He fed you that lie when you were small and impressionable, hoping that it would allow him to spend more time with you,” he says, cutting into my thoughts. “He didn’t tell your mom until today. But she knew. She always knew that he was your father. And she was secretly happy that he was your doctor all this time, even if she didn’t know why.”

My mouth is dry. I’m back in shock, I think. No more thoughts.

“She does love you. In her own fucked-up way.” He squeezes my hand gently, as if to remind me that he’s there. “She hates herself too much to properly love somebody else.”

Makes sense. I can’t look at them anymore. It hurts me somewhere that I don’t really want to acknowledge. Like somebody is punching me in the chest, over and over and over again.

“Like somebody else I know,” Dexter’s tone is amused.

I rip my hand out of his and whirl on him, rage licking me like fire. “What the fuck do you know?” I snarl. “Fuck you!” I turn to storm away, and run straight into a brick wall of abs.

I stumble back and fall on my ass, looking up into those molten eyes. I try to speak again but nothing but a high-pitched whine comes out.

He crouches down into a squat, arms hanging casually over his knees. He regards me carefully, and I see concern there.

“You’re unique, you know?” he says quietly, almost as if he’s musing to himself. “I was enthralled with you the first time I saw you. You’re one of the most self-destructive humans I’ve ever come across, but you have this fire, this determination to survive. Like the self-destructiveness is just a sport for you. You hate your existence but you get off on hating your existence. It’s fascinating.”

A hysterical laugh bubbles up out of me throat. “Oh, thanks,” I say, meaning to sound cutting and sarcastic. Instead it comes out weak. I suppose being dead and finding out a big part of my life was a lie has ruined my mojo.

“You parade around like you’re hot shit, like you don’t give a fuck about anybody,” he continues as if I hadn’t spoken, “but then you treat yourself like less than nothing. When somebody shows you love, even though you feel it too, you spiral so low you willingly let somebody drug you and fuck your limp body.”

I recoil as if struck. How does he know that? How does he know anything? Why does he have such an understanding expression on his face? I shuffle backwards.

“Don’t,” he urges, reaching out to grab my hand again. He sinks forward onto his knees, joining me in the grass. “You already ran from me.” His gaze captures mine like a devil’s snare and holds me in place. He’s so warm. “But then you came back. And then you died for me. Why did you do that?”

My throat is raw. “I don’t know.”

“You do,” Dexter replies, voice firmer now. “You just don’t want to admit it. But you proved it.”

My head spins. The moment I saw that gun barrel, saw what was about to happen…

I was in denial about why I’d come back to him. But I did go back. I didn’t skip town, never to see or hear from him again. I went back, knowing on some level he would still be there, waiting for me. And then when that car screeched up, when the shooter aimed the gun at him, I didn’t think.

I just reacted.

I threw myself in the path of that bullet and didn’t even really know consciously what I was doing. Examining it now… I’d decided in the split second with the crack of that gun that his life was worth more than mine. That I valued him enough to take my self-destruction right to the climax. To my death.

I blink, and realize that my cheeks are wet. When did I start crying?

“I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” Dexter says, and reaches up to cup my cheek. He runs his thumb under my left eye, brushing away the moisture there. “It’s ridiculous that you have the same name as the stupid legend.”

His words are like a slap to the face, and my eyes widen. “Who…” I choke on the thickness in my throat and growl to try clear it. Who are you?

“Do you remember when you first came to visit me in jail?” he asks with a wry smile. “You brought me that amazing chili. And you first told me your name.”

My body goes cold. Or my ghostly remains. Or whatever. Fuck. Is he saying what I think he’s saying? This is insanity. I must be in a coma or something. Or the afterlife is just a perpetual existence of dream fuckery.

“This is real,” he says. The hand stroking my cheek slides around the back of my head, and he pulls me forward for a kiss. Just before our lips meet, he breathes, “I’m real.”

He claims my mouth and it’s as if all of my breath is stolen from me. The kiss is languid, slow, for about thirty seconds, until he circles my waist with his other massive arm and pulls me flush against him. Everything is suddenly warm. I’m lost in him. His tongue massages mine and he tastes like life, ambrosia, everything spice and nice and the answer to existence.

I melt against him, and he stands up, taking me with him, keeping the kiss deep as he clutching my body against his.

When we part, my chest is heaving and I feel flushed, and we’re not in the graveyard anymore. We’re standing on top of a mountain. Snow surrounds us, streaming out in all directions, covering giant mounts of rock as far as the eye can see. I gasp and clutch at his shirt, as if he’s an anchor to my sanity.

I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite, but I don’t have much to go on in this moment.

It’s now that I realize that I don’t even feel the cold. I still feel as warm and temperate as I did in the graveyard.

Where the fuck are we?

“About seventy-five hundred meters above sea level,” he replies, that amusement back in his tone that doesn’t help with my exasperation. “In China.”

My mouth makes that squeaking noise again.

He takes my chin and raises my gaze to his. “Figured it out yet?”

I swallow the golf-ball sized anxiety in my throat. “I can’t… are you…? F-fuck.” Are you saying that you’re the God of the Underworld? Are you saying that you’re goddamn fucking Hades, for fuck’s sake? Lucifer?

Dexter chuckles. “I have a lot of names, but none of the lore really gets my story right,” he says, as casually as if we were discussing the weather. “You tell a couple of humans some stuff and it gets twisted over the years, especially when there was no paper and everything got passed down by word-of-mouth.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I find my voice, and my strength, and shove against his chest. “This has got to be a coma dream. As if Hades would be playing guitar in a stupid club in the city! You’re, like, a nice fucking guy. You saved me from a skeezy asshole and went to jail for me!”

“Just because I’m King of the Underworld doesn’t mean I’m not a nice guy,” he says, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “I told you the stories got a lot of it wrong.”

“What the fuck do you want with me?” I throw my arms up. “I’m just some bitch you met. That got you in a shit ton of trouble.”

Some bitch wouldn’t have fought for me in court,” he says, and his calm demeanor is irritating. I fight the urge to claw at his face. “Some bitch wouldn’t have visited me in jail, or taken me into her home, or taken a fucking bullet for me.”

I’m shaking. And I’m pretty sure I’m crying again. But my hands feel so heavy I can’t bring myself to wipe at my face to find out.

“You did all of that,” Dexter continues, taking a step towards me in the deep snow, “for a random guy who almost killed somebody in a bar. And let me tell you that I didn’t care whether he lived or died. I didn’t care if I went to jail for murder. I could have easily poofed myself out. Saved you all that trouble. But you fascinated me.

“I wanted to know what you were going to do. So I waited. And you came to me. You did everything you could to get me out of there, and take care of me. You took so many chances on me that you’ve never taken with anyone else. And now I want to ask you to take one more chance.”

An actual sob wracks me as he pulls me into his arms once again.

“Be my Queen,” he whispers.

I fist my hands in his shirt, and pull his mouth against mine.

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